TX: Underlying conviction for illegal reentry into the U.S.
Facts: The clients, illegal aliens, contacted Casita Maria, Inc. to arrange for immigration counseling services. In the course of that counseling, the clients met with multiple Casita employees, who counseled them to file certain forms and fees with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). An employee of Casita filled out these forms for the clients and afterward an attorney reviewed the forms and opined that they were complete and ready to be filed. Upon advice of another Casita employee, the clients mailed the documents to their local district’s INS. Once the INS became aware of the client’s whereabouts, the INS scheduled an interview with them, which a Casita employee attended. At the interview, the clients were notified that his application to register for permanent residence would likely be denied. The client was later arrested, charged with illegally reentering the U.S., and sentenced to prison. The client alleged that the attorney is liable for legal malpractice in failing to counsel him to submit the correct INS forms and but for this negligence he would not have been imprisoned.
Issue: Whether claims of legal malpractice may be brought where the conviction has not been overturned?
Ruling: No. Under Texas law, claims of malpractice and negligence based on a criminal conviction may not be brought unless that conviction has been overturned. Peeler v. Huges & Luce, 909 S.W.2d 494 (Tex. 1995). In Peeler, the Court held that “as a matter of law, it is the illegal conduct rather than the negligence of a convict’s counsel that is the cause in fact of any injuries flowing from the conviction, unless the conviction has been overturned.” Id. at 498. Although the client’s claims of negligence and malpractice arise from representation in an administrative law setting rather than criminal, the harm to him is the same. Client seeks damages for his incarceration. Convicts may not shift the consequences of their crime to a third party. The client was incarcerated here because he plead guilty to a charge of illegal re-entry, not because of any action or inaction on part of attorney. Attorney’s motion to dismiss granted.
Lesson: Claims of legal malpractice seeking damages due to incarceration, including administrative law settings, may not be brought unless the conviction has been overturned.